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One principal’s work to integrate arts in the classroom

Justin Carver was a student at Avery Middle School when it became an A+ School of North Carolina in the ’90s. A+ Schools weave the arts into education standards and experiences at every level. He remembers all those days vividly, with teachers collaborating and working together to make sure all the art forms were represented in the curriculum.

Carver has a perspective unlike most with the A+ Schools program. He has been both a student and an administrator at an A+ School. Of the three schools in the A+ network in Avery County, he has worked in leadership positions at all of them.

“It is just the one thing that levels the playing field for all kids.”

Justin Carver, principal at Banner Elk Elementary
Students at Banner Elk Elementary dress up like their principal, Justin Carver. Courtesy of Banner Elk Elementary

Now principal at Banner Elk Elementary, he works at the forefront of arts integration. What does that look like for the staff? At every faculty meeting, educators must share an activity that others can take back to the classroom and use on the fly to keep arts in mind. There are intentional nine-week planning meetings with art teachers, librarians, and grade level teachers to plan for the arts.

There is a play each year in December (except 2020 due to the pandemic), and every student — pre-K through 5th grade — has a part on stage. Fourth and fifth graders take the main speaking roles, and students meet every Monday with the Drama Club leader, Carver himself, to work on the play.

“It kind of keeps me inspired and engaged, and on the kids’ level.”

Justin Carver, principal at Banner Elk Elementary

Carver revels in this role and knows through his experience as an educator how important it can be for certain students. “My focus is kids who have severe anxiety or EC needs — to get them on the stage, front and center, to overcome fears,” he says.

In his four years at Banner Elk, students have performed “The Lion King,” “The Jungle Book,” and “Aladdin.” They hope to reschedule “Frozen” for next year.

Banner Elk Elementary performs “The Jungle Book.” Courtesy of Banner Elk Elementary

“I’m kind of known as the arts principal in the county.”

Justin Carver, principal at Banner Elk Elementary

History of leadership

Carver himself was always musically inclined. He joined the band in both middle and high school and participated in drama. He grew up doing plays for his local church, so it was easy to get involved at school.

What made Carver want to move into a leadership role in education? Knowing the impact and change he could make for his small community. He taught for four years at Newland Elementary School, and then the assistant principal job at Avery Middle School opened up.

He took on a leadership position to ignite the A + program again at Avery Middle School, which had been dormant for a while. He knows buy-in from the staff is an integral key in maintaining an art focus throughout any school. He was part of a team that was concentrated on revitalizing and rebuilding art integration.

He worked for three years at Avery Middle School as the assistant principal before moving to Cranberry Middle School as the principal. The schools were in similar situations when he arrived, and he joined the faculty in their quest to integrate arts into all parts of the curriculum. After three years of leading Cranberry Middle, he was approached by the superintendent to make one more transition.

Dancing in class at Banner Elk Elementary. Courtesy of Banner Elk Elementary

He has now been principal at Banner Elk Elementary for four years year, and is happy to see his two prior schools “carrying the torch” of arts integration.

Banner Elk and the arts

In Banner Elk, the Arts Council folded six years ago, and Carver is trying to get it back up and running. Among many things outside of school, he is involved with the North Carolina Arts Council, has worked in summer programing with the local Lees-McRae College, and is A+ School liaison, mentoring other principals as their schools become involved in the program.

Last year he worked with three principals, and this year he is working with four. He knows how important it is to foster leadership and support for the arts and enjoys being in this role.

“I think having a principal as a [A+ Schools] liaison … kind of gives that person a freedom to say all the things things that they struggle with without having judgment or giving them the lens of perspective from a principal.”

Justin Carver, principal at Banner Elk Elementary

Carver believes the arts are a game changer for students of all abilities. He has seen what infusing arts into standards can do for students, since he has also been one.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.